Error by Adam Jasper

Error by Adam Jasper

Digital photography is the dominant mode of image production. The contest is so settled that the question ‘What is the difference between analog and digital photography?’ is no longer fashionable. Occasionally cranks, fetishists, anoraks hazard to answer it. The enthusiast answers, ‘somehow analog is warmer, it feels more real.’ What does this mean? What are they driving at? There is a dismissive answer: ‘the enthusiast suffers from nostalgia’. This is perhaps true, but it creates further questions, like what exactly do these analog objects tell us about the function of nostalgia?

Begin with gross matter. Messages are material—paint and printer’s ink, silver halide molecules and pixels, vibrating cardboard cones and twisted nematics. There is a physical stuff to each act of communication. Each medium has its own peculiar characteristics, constituted by its physical limitations. No medium is perfect. We can call this dumb stuff, because it goes without saying.

The mute stuff of media is only knowable through its material imperfection. Think of the hack metaphor that photography is like a window: "the basic material of photographs is not intrinsically beautiful. It's not like ivory or tapestry or bronze or oil on canvas. You're not supposed to look at the thing, you're supposed to look through it. It's a window." (John Szarkowski). But we can only see the glass when it’s dirty. The photograph as photograph is only visible when we don’t look through it, but at it. Said differently, each error reveals the internal anatomy of the media format, in fact error consists in media being self referential, unbidden. In so far as media performs its task well it is transparent, unobtrusive, but errors take apart the black box of recording devices and show us how they work.


Loss of cyan


What we look at are the errors. Some evoke the way in which materials degrade over time. The curling and dessication at the edge of wet plate photographs, increasingly brittle paper, the fading of 70's snapshots1 . Such errors not only fix an image to a lost time and a place, but they also give the image something like patina, the quality of having been cherished over time. The imperfections are a mark of the authenticity of the document.

Other errors, like the bright halos that surround the deep black of letters caught in a gutter shadow of a photocopied book, the radiant green blooms produced by overwhelmed CCDs or the warm haze of infrared light unintentionally caught by digital sensors, betray the quirks of the mechanical apparatus (the machine) used to capture the image. These kinds of device errors are always indices of the machine, regardless of whether or not the image that results is analog or digital. In fact, such errors are always a kind of uninvited self referential moment by the machine—increasingly, unlike the explicit content of the image, it’s the errors that seem real.


Blooming error in stellar photography


McLuhan observed that the content of every medium is another medium: “the content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print the content of the telegraph” (Extensions of Man, 1964, 23). Applying McLuhan’s formula some half century on, the content of digital photography is analog photography. More exactly, the technical form (the look, limits and errors) of analog photography become the typical content of digital photography. This is shown in that the first extensions of digital photography mimicked the formal constraints of the technology that it cannibalized. The inaugural plug-in to be released for photoshop was lens flare; a filter that enabled an error to be introduced into an otherwise flawless picture, in order to tether the digital image to a fictitious mechanical past. Likewise, Instagram has built its popularity on filters that give the illusion of the fading and decomposition of dyes, or that surround the image with darkened vignettes. On the launch of the domestic digital inkjet, Kodak produced a paper with a glossy gelatin-like finish, so that printed images would appear as if they had gone through the wet treatment of a conventional dark room. The gelatin gave them a skin, and thereby also a body.


Fake analog error in sunglasses advertising campaign


What matters isn’t the failure of the material itself, it’s our reaction to it. Error in analog media is always a stochastic halo of noise, a portion of noise around a trace of message. When we hear the voice of some loved human broken down on a phone line, we listen through the error. It causes us to strain ourselves forwards so as not to miss a thing, the comportment it produces is that of the lover. A codec error on Skype has the opposite effect. The granulation of sound, the alien garbles and inverted colours are oddly repulsive, because instead of perceiving the person through the signal, we’re reminded that we have been engaging with a wholly synthetic apparition all along—a stream of quantified data. The first error increases attentiveness (one seeks to hear through the interference), and reinforces our sense of both the distance and realness of the person we are speaking to. The second error is uncanny, because it draws attention to the uncomfortable fact that we are speaking to a simulacrum. The difference is that even a noisy analog signal or a faded picture has, via a long chain of cause and effect, the shadow of a human physical presence. We’re a long way from the outline of the shadow sketched by the maid of Corinth, but we’re still in her world, one centered around presence. The digital message, however, is entirely abstract, a code within a code.

The history of media error replays the political economy of the sign, its evolution from a source of evidence into a token purely for circulation. The entire history of photographic portraits—from the daguerreotype to Facebook head shots—can be seen as a movement away from presence and towards resemblance, the most unsatisfying kind of truth. Error, however, in its embarrassing revelation of the inner workings of the device returns presence to us, but this time with the subject of photography no longer the human face, but rather the ghost in the machine.


1. For those interested in forensics: magenta fades fastest in photographs exposed to light, whereas cyan degrades first in photographs stored in darkness. 70s snapshots kept in family albums tend to acquire a warm reddish hue, whereas old photographs that have been in bright daylight have a blue-green cast about them—as a rule, the more light they’ve seen, the colder they look.

Adam Jasper is a regular contributor to Cabinet, Frieze, and other publications.